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Scientists Unravel Skin Cancer Switch


Monday 6 April 2009


Up to 70 per cent of melanoma skin cancers could be triggered by a particular genetic mutation, according to a study by The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) published in Cancer Cell* today (Monday).


The ICR scientists had previously found that the BRAF gene is damaged or mutated in up to 70 per cent of human melanoma, but they did not know whether this was a cause or result of the cancer.


Now, the same group of researchers has discovered that acquiring the BRAF mutation can be the first event in the cascade of genetic changes that eventually leads to melanoma – the most deadly form of skin cancer.


This research, funded by Cancer Research UK, confirms that BRAF is a driving force behind the disease and could be the trigger that leads to skin cancer.


Lead author Professor Richard Marais from the ICR, said: “We know that excessive sun exposure is the main cause of skin cancer, but not much is known about the genetics behind it.


“Our study shows that the genetic damage of BRAF is the first step in skin cancer development.


“Understanding this process will help us develop more effective treatments for the disease.”


There are around 9,500 new cases of malignant melanoma and more than 2,300 deaths from the disease each year in the UK.


Over-exposure to sunlight causes at least two thirds of all malignant melanomas and up to nine out of ten of all non-melanoma skin cancers.

This excessive exposure damages DNA and causes genetic mutations.


Dr Lesley Walker, Director of Cancer Information at Cancer Research UK, said: “Skin cancer is the seventh most common cancer in the UK, but relatively little is known about the genetics behind the disease.


“This week, Cancer Research UK launches our SunSmart campaign to help raise awareness of the risks and causes of skin cancer.


“There’s lots of exciting research focussed on developing new therapies that will block the function of mutant BRAF.


“A better understanding of the genetics of skin cancer can help scientists develop more targeted drugs with fewer side effects to treat the disease.”


Notes to editors:

* Reference: Oncogenic Braf Induces Melanocyte Senescence and Melanoma in Mice; Cancer Cell, Volume 15, Issue 4, 294-303, 7 April 2009


About skin cancer

There are two main types of skin cancer, melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer. Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer.

Sun exposure is the main and most preventable risk factor. The sun gives off UV (ultraviolet) rays. UV can cause skin damage, including sunburn and premature ageing of the skin. This damage can eventually lead to skin cancer.

Around one third of melanomas develop from normal moles. The rest develop on areas of previously normal skin.

The earlier melanoma is detected, the better the chance of cure. If you notice any of the following signs, then see your doctor without delay.

Asymmetry - The two halves of your mole do not look the same.
Border - The edges of your mole are irregular, blurred or jagged.
Colour - The colour of your mole is uneven, with more than one shade.
Diameter - Your mole is wider than 6mm in diameter (the size of a pencil eraser).


About The ICR

The Institute of Cancer Research is Europe’s leading cancer research centre with expert scientists working on cutting edge research. In 2009, the ICR marks its 100 years of world leading research into cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment. The ICR is a charity that relies on voluntary income. It is one of the world’s most cost-effective major cancer research organisations with more than 95p in every £ directly supporting research. For more information visit


About Cancer Research UK

• Together with its partners and supporters, Cancer Research UK's vision is to beat cancer.
• Cancer Research UK carries out world-class research to improve understanding of the disease and find out how to prevent, diagnose and treat different kinds of cancer.
• Cancer Research UK ensures that its findings are used to improve the lives of all cancer patients.
• Cancer Research UK helps people to understand cancer, the progress that is being made and the choices each person can make.
• Cancer Research UK works in partnership with others to achieve the greatest impact in the global fight against cancer.
• For further information about Cancer Research UK's work or to find out how to support the charity, please call 020 7009 8820 or visit


Remember the SunSmart messages

• Spend time in the shade between 11 and 3
• Make sure you never burn
• Aim to cover up with a t-shirt, hat and sunglasses
• Remember to take extra care with children
• Then use factor 15+ sunscreen

Also report mole changes or unusual skin growths promptly to your doctor.

SunSmart is the UK’s national skin cancer prevention campaign commissioned by the UK Health Departments and run by Cancer Research UK. Find out more at

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